Representing the creative future

If you go into fashion for the glamour, you can’t stick around for long

Axel Arigato's new creative director, Jens Werner, on having a long-term fashion career

The cat is out of the bag: Jens Werner steps in as Axel Arigato’s new creative director, following the brand’s co-founder Max Svärdh. With a surprising path that includes a business degree and self-taught design skills, Werner is the right person to ask about making a living out of creativity and navigating a more alternative fashion career. We went on the set of Werner’s first campaign, “An Infinite Dream,” to discuss what it means to be a Creative Director today and to seek his advice for the next generation of creatives.

For his first campaign shoot as creative director, Werner envisions a literal box—a small room where reality bends in favour of sneaker-induced euphoria. The small space is a treasure chest of clues the designer left to indicate what we can expect from his tenure. The room is a metaphor for community, which the designer calls Axel Arigato’s driving force. Instead of idealizing a perfect customer, Werner creates with the community responsible for the brand’s success in mind. The family he alludes to isn’t simply made up of buyers; it involves the relationship the brand has built with countless artists and artisans. On set, a funky bed stand has slats with sneaker embroideries, a challenge Werner gave to the clothing factories the brand works with. He wanted to learn from them how they interpreted Axel Arigato’s hero product. A monumentally bumpy sink was built by Jon Buck, one of the first artists tapped to help with the brand’s stores. Werner proudly announces that he pushed the artist to produce something out of his comfort zone, he’s adamant about sharing the growth the company is experiencing.

Besides faithful creative partners, the brand’s new creative director is unearthing new connections. As we walk through the small set, Werner states his involvement with the production of each piece—and his obvious love for interior decor. One of these was built by Charlotte Kingsnorth, a London-based artist who explores upholstery as a medium for identity. Kingsnorth is one of Werner’s first collaborators as creative director. As he explains her piece, the artist is as fascinated as we are, the designer’s passion is palpable. Werner isn’t trying to swim with or against the current, he has found his own stream.

Surprisingly, you don’t have a formal education in fashion. How do you think being a self-taught designer has affected your career?

Jens Werner: That’s a very good question. I think I’ve felt the pros and the cons of it my whole career. I can’t do my job to its full extent without having someone from my team that has a design background. I need someone who can bridge the gap between where I am and where I want to get. But I’ve always felt that you can learn the tools to access creativity but it’s something that it’s your responsibility to keep exploring. Ever since I was a kid, I have been creative but when it came time to choose a degree, I went for something safer. Growing up in a small town in Germany there’s pressure, a mentality that creativity won’t make you a living. I ended up with a marketing and management degree, but I knew what I wanted. While I was studying business, I was learning how to make patterns and sew. I made a small collection independently so I could apply for design internships. That’s how I got an internship at Y-3 and I ended up staying there for five years.

“Along the way, [my marketing degree] was an advantage because, in reality, any design job requires business knowledge.” – Jens Werner

Do you find that a marketing degree helped you navigate the industry? Most fashion design courses famously lack any business training…

JW: Totally. When I was applying for internships, it was almost an advantage. I could show my portfolio and prove I had technical skills but that I could easily blend into the development side. Along the way, it was an advantage because, in reality, any design job requires business knowledge. How you design is influenced by price point and things of that nature. It’s been almost eight years of leading design teams, and something I’ve noticed is that business awareness is lacking in design students. I think it’s essential to. Besides figuring out your language, you should know how to translate it into reality.

We were talking earlier, and you spoke so elegantly about how you understand your new role. I’m curious, how do you define a creative director?

JW: I’d say the normal creative director is the one who brings a team of creatives together within a framework and creates a vision. I was so lucky that I got this role for the first time when I was 26, the design director role at Tory Sport in New York. From there I went on to be creative director at J. Lindeberg at 28. I always had a naivety in these roles. I don’t want to just sit there and wait to get things done. I want to get my hands dirty, I want to be the first one on set. That’s the good thing about leading Axel Arigato, we’re not a huge brand yet, we’re in the process [Laughs]. It’s not too corporate or complex. If I want someone to know how to make this, I want to know myself. I want to know how to make a shoe. A “normal” creative director maybe doesn’t know all their factories but for me, especially, because I haven’t worked so much in footwear, I like to lead by example.

You’ve worked at Axel Arigato for many years now. How do you think that affects your current role?

JW: It helps a lot. You have battles to fight when you start to do something new, especially in today’s climate. But being at Axel Arigato for three years and being able to work so closely with the founder, helped me understand the brand in deep ways. In 10 years, when we grow bigger, and the key recipe has to change it’s important to know where it started.

You’re also the brand’s second creative director, following Max Svärdh, one of Axel Arigato’s co-founders. Do you feel any pressure to expand its decade-long legacy?

JW: I think that’s the nice thing. He always made me feel comfortable – especially as we worked side by side for a while. Over the last year and a half, Max made me feel like this decision might happen, so it was a very organic hand-off. It has made both him, the other founder, and the investors believe that I can lead the brand into its next phase.

How does your vision for the brand alter the current perception of Axel Arigato?

JW: Axel is an interesting brand because we started as a shoe and sneaker brand that doesn’t have a background in sports. If you have that kind of angle to it your brand can captivate its audience by having talent wear it on the field. If you don’t have that foundation for the brand, it’s quite hard because it means you’re either competing with high fashion or mass-market brands. I want to establish us as what a lifestyle brand could be. Lifestyle is a weird term and often misused. We have some freedom because shoes are more versatile and democratic than a piece of clothing. We can’t be everything, but I envision the brand in its spaces, experiences, and encounters.

As we were touring the set for the new campaign you mentioned how interior decor is a huge inspiration for you. How does that manifest?

JW: I think it suits us. The brand had such a fun beginning, it opened when both founders were just 25. They dreamt of having a store in London and, even after everyone told them they couldn’t, they did it, they opened their store in Soho. It was successful from day one. They did things their way. Usually, for a sneaker retail space, you’d expect the footwear to be on the wall. They reinterpreted that by presenting it like an art gallery. Shoes are presented on a podium to be appreciated from all angles. Space has always been a defining characteristic of the brand, but we have yet to embrace it as a main source of inspiration. I’m interested in looking at shoes like an artist does, more so than a soccer player for example.

“How do I show this craftiness that I bring? How do I challenge suppliers to think outside of their box?” –  Jens Werner

Axel Arigato is set to open its second store in London in July, followed by another opening in New York in September. Why is physical retail such an important investment for the brand?

JW: It goes hand in hand with our DNA. Even with this campaign, that’s how I view the brand pushing forward creatively. If you work for any other brand, you show your vision through a fashion show, but we don’t really do that and I’m not planning on it. I would much rather have that vision concentrated in a space people can visit, it’s so much more engaging. This campaign’s room is my version of showcasing my vision. How do I show this craftiness that I bring? How do I challenge suppliers to think outside of their box? How do I collaborate with artists that I believe can be part of our DNA? A physical room is the solution.

Hearing you speak about your path it seems you were always determined to be on the path you’re in. Did you ever consider having your own brand? What do you make of the independent brand path?

JW: I think anyone dreams of their own brand. But, for me, I always felt more excited about bringing myself to an existing brand where I get to define their journey. The way I view it, anything you do as a creative is your brand in a way. I think independent brands are great because these are the people who break the creative rulebook. It’s hard because no matter how fulfilling it might be it’s extremely hard right now. It’s challenging to cut through. We consume everything in a second, we have a hard time remembering everything we see.

“Very early on I was allowed to fly to Tokyo and meet Yohji Yamamoto and the Japanese team. I was 23 flying to Tokyo alone and presenting in front of everyone, my manager knew how nervous I was and coached me for it. It’s so rare you find someone that doesn’t take the credit or puts themselves first.” – Jens Werner

You mentioned your first leading role was at 26. How do you think you managed to climb the ranks so young?

JW: Honestly part of it was because of my background, business school helps you in any kind of management role. But I’d say the biggest credit goes to my manager and director at Y-3. She broke every stereotype, she embraced the team. Very early on I was allowed to fly to Tokyo and meet Yohji Yamamoto and the Japanese team. I was 23 flying to Tokyo alone and presenting in front of everyone, my manager knew how nervous I was and coached me for it. It’s so rare you find someone that doesn’t take the credit or puts themselves first. By the time I was 25, I went to New York and met Tory (Burch) through a contact at Vogue. She was impressed by my work and happened to be looking for a design director for her sports line. But I would’ve never been able to have the confidence to even have that conversation if it wasn’t for my boss at Y-3.

Axel Arigato Campaign

“If you go into fashion for the glamour, I don’t know if you’ll stick around for long.” – Jens Werner

Many view your current position as creative director as the professional pinnacle. What is your advice for young designers?

JW: Just a light question [Laughs]. I don’t know if there’s a right way to answer that question. Design is so insanely hard to make as a career. I think it comes down to why you’re doing it. If you go into fashion for the glamour, I don’t know if you’ll stick around for long. If passion truly rules you, I genuinely think you’ll be able to make it, you won’t stop until you do. That’s what I feel for me. I have a genuine interest in what I do. I want to go to the factory and learn how the shoes are made. I want to find new ways to do it, not because it’s a job but because it keeps me up day and night. Of course, luck is a big part of it – it was for me. But that can be built through relationships, you have to be open to any and every contact. People will connect the dots of your career if you’re open to it. The fashion world is small.

“It has to be the reason you get up in the morning, otherwise, you’re just working a lot and getting paid very little for a long time.” – Charlotte Kingsnorth

Charlotte, same question. What advice would you give to aspiring artists?

Charlotte Kingsnorth: Sometimes I have students visit me and they ask the same question. I have a similar answer to Jens’. It has to be the reason you get up in the morning, otherwise, you’re just working a lot and getting paid very little for a long time. Your eyes can’t be on the deadline, they have to be where you are. You can’t just go to someone’s studio and see an event and focus on what they have, you have to appreciate doing the work that got them there.

The rooms in the campaign are used as a metaphor for idiosyncratic qualities. Do you think of your pieces as conscious beings?

CK: I definitely see objects as real. I like the idea of having conversations with them when no one is in the room. I often work with pre-existing chair frames, and I pick them for the character I have in mind. I see the quirks of the objects, the twists, the defects are just like ours, they’re part of their character. That’s what I bring out with my upholstery.

You distort the line between craft and art. How did you develop your unique approach and style?

CK: It was a mixture of things. I first had the idea on a trip to Mexico. I saw this plastic picnic chair that was broken, someone had mended it by tying palm trees around it. It was so much more special than before. The coming together of a new material that’s soft and malleable was something I loved. At the time I was looking at figurative painters and how they thought of paint as body matter. I started seeing body parts as material based.

What is the process of making one of your pieces like?

CK: I approach every project like a sort of foreigner. I try to find a new method every time. That’s what inspired me and pushed me forward. I want to find new ways to work and challenge traditional crafts. I never did a professional upholstery course, once I finished my degree I went and knocked on the door of an upholsterer. I asked him “Can I just bother you for a week max? I’ll buy you tea and lunch.” It was great, he taught me just enough to know how to make it but allowed me to have the space to keep trying things.

That is so interesting, much like Jens, you found your place manually. Speaking of the connection between you, how did this collaboration come about?

JW: I have been following Charlotte for a bit. When I got this role my first thought was how I could bring what I liked into it. I’m a big lover of furniture, I think it translates well to a brand like Axel. These objects sit in a room and communicate much like shoes or clothing do. That’s what I thought when I saw Charlotte’s work for the first time. For this campaign I wanted to have objects that would make people want to touch them, that would compel them to zoom in on a picture. To me, that’s already something to be proud of in a scroll-based culture.

CK: I think that conversation was important, I think they’re essential for any collaboration. To work with people you have to have similar beliefs in a way. I felt comfortable because Axel Arigato is also a brand that I enjoy. I often work by looking at fashion, it feeds into my work quite a lot. The attention to detail, like the laces, for example, is something that excites me.

“It’s rare in fashion to have a real dialogue. So often it’s all done through corporate contacts without any true interaction.” – Jens Werner

Charlotte, you created bespoke pieces for the AW24 campaign. I know some artists can be quite precious about their ideas, do you enjoy collaborating with someone on a piece?

CK: I like the idea of it. I’m very strong-minded but I like collaborating with people that have a strong sense of self. It’s that clash that produces great work.

JW:  Definitely, an additional vision has to make it stronger, not water it down. That’s why collaborations like this work but you need that human element. It’s rare in fashion to have a real dialogue. So often it’s all done through corporate contacts without any true interaction. It’s something that’s missing from fashion.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about this because before when I asked you about your vision, most designers would tend to picture a client as an ideal person, but you described a space for community. Why do you think that is?

JW: I think space connects us all. We are three very different people sitting in the same room. Even in your most intimate moments, space becomes a shareable experience if you ignore time. When you’re sleeping in a hotel bedroom, you’re sharing it with thousands of strangers that slept there before you. Space is what unites us all in a way.